jo_graham (jo_graham) wrote,
jo_graham
jo_graham

Co-writing

A reader asks if I can talk a little bit about the process of co-writing books, as she's planning to do it in the future. Sure -- I've co-written six -- Homecoming, Secrets, Moebius Squared and Lost Things with Melissa Scott, and The Lost and Lifeboat with Amy Griswold. Of those four were Stargate books and two original, Lost Things and Lifeboat.

I think the biggest thing is this -- you have to be on the same page about what the story is about. I don't mean what happens in the story or who the characters are. I mean what the story is about on the deepest level, what the philosophical underpinnings of the story are and what you believe about the universe. What is the message? What are people supposed to come away from the book thinking about the world? What do you want people to absorb on an unconscious level?

That's hard. That's really hard, because often we're not aware what assumptions we are bringing to things, much less what assumptions someone else is, because of course that's how the world works! Of course everyone understands that.... But no. And so you have to have some very in depth conversations, and sometimes you'll realize at that point that you can't write this book together. You are not saying the same thing, even if you try to tell a story about the same characters doing the same thing. For example, one thing we started with in the Legacy series is this -- syncreticism is desirable and possible.



I believe that one of the most dangerous ideas in the world today is the idea that contact between cultures is inevitably bad. There are only two options -- no contact and preserving cultural purity (The Prime Directive) or exploitation and conquest. That's it. Either you never speak to them, or you conquer them or are conquered by them. I think this idea is enormously dangerous in the real world, and it's also false. Most contact between cultures is peaceful and productive. When I talk to you in the UK or Sweden or Japan or Poland, I am not exploiting you nor are you exploiting me. If you get me interested in Takarazuka or I get you interested in SG-1, this is not conquest! This is not pollution.

This is syncreticism, wherein people deliberately choose to adopt something from a culture different from that of their birth because they like it. You watch British tv because you like the show. You listen to American music because you like the singer. You eat pasta carbonara or tandoori chicken because you like it. No one is making you eat sushi! You go out for sushi because someone introduced you to it and you decided it was good. No one is making you watch Dr Who because it's British imperialism -- you like the show so you watch. That's how most cultural change happens. People choose to adopt the culture of their neighbors because they like it, or because it answers a need in their society. People learn from each other. That's how agriculture was adopted thousands of years ago. That's how the domestication of animals spread. Someone has a good thing and other people see the worth of it, and they change to adopt it. This is one of the places we began with the Legacy series -- this is not a story about how cross cultural contact is bad. This is not a story about how the only ethical option is the Prime Directive. This is an active refutation of that narrative -- that the inevitable result of contact is conquest and oppression.

So, if it's possible for peoples to meet and learn from each other in a positive way, what does that look like? How do you do that? And how do you convey that to the reader? One way is through the micro-model. Let's say you come from a family that makes sweet potato pie at Thanksgiving. And then you marry someone who comes from a family to whom it's just not Thanksgiving without pumpkin pie! What do you do? Have two pies? Rotate which year you make which pie? Make a chocolate cake instead? Decide that you're not as into sweet potato pie as all that and you could just have pumpkin? Lots of people make these decisions all the time, and most of them make them without fighting to the death over them. People compromise. They meet in the middle. That's the heart of a relationship. They change their personal culture. "In our family we always have two pies."

That's why John/Teyla. People can understand and look at cultural relations in the context of human relationships. It's not a zero-sum game. It's about compromise, not conquest. Teyla isn't going to come back to Earth and be an Air Force wife and abandon her own culture. John isn't going to become an Athosian farmer and abandon his. For either to do so would be to lose something essential to each of them. But is there a place between?

Our answer is yes. There is always a place between. There is always Atlantis, just as there is always Alexandria, whether or not it's a physical place. There is always middle ground (Common Ground?). But the place between comes with a price. Both of them become a new thing. Both of them have to leave behind part of their old culture. Both of them have to change. And that's what makes syncreticism so frightening to people in the real world. Yes, you have to change. You. Not them. Or not only them. You have to change and become more like them as they become more like you. Not they realize how right you are and agree with you, but that you both move to middle ground. That is the road to lasting peace. In Black Ships Gull says to Lavinia, "Blood may be shed side by side, but the only place it mingles is in the womb." A new people, neither one thing nor the other, but both.

So what does that have to do with co-writing? That's the thing you have to be on the same page about -- what is this story about at the deepest level? If you're not on the same page there the process is either going to produce chaos or pieces that do not fit together stylistically or philosophically. You've seen this with tv shows when the show runners have lost their way -- scripts by different writers in the same season that say entirely different things about the characters and their world and leave the viewer with a case of whiplash! Not easy mistakes, like inconsistent names or continuity, because those can be fixed by editing, but different interpretations of what the show is supposed to be about and who these character are. Is X an ass? Or a nice guy? Is this a hostile world full of people out to get the main characters or an interesting place full of neat things to explore? The tone shifts wildly and erratically. That's the part you have to get on the same page, and it's much more important than talking about the characters or the plot. What is the book about?

With Lost Things, Melissa and I started off with a premise and a feel -- this is like Raiders of the Lost Ark, only it's a team book. It has the feel of the tightly knit team shows we love in the style and period and feel of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The four main characters are all sympathetic, all different, all equally contributing to success, and they have complicated relationships and histories. Mitch, Jerry, Alma and Lewis have different skills and personalities, but the thing the reader can count on is that they will be there for each other and that they'll try to do the right thing. None of them are perfect, and all of them are scarred, but they're the heroes, and the reader will root for them. And at the end of the book you'll put it down and feel good, like the credits rolling and that John Williams theme playing. The plot of Lost Things was easy after that, and the plots of the next two books with the team that we've got in outline, Steel Blues and Silver Bullet. The plot's easy. The hard thing is finding a match for the story.

With Lifeboat once again Amy and I started with a premise and a feel -- those wonderful books by Marion Zimmer Bradley or Andre Norton, that classic space opera that was social science based and character driven, that took a basically positive view of humanity. It's a simple premise -- a group of people from a lifeboat fleeing an interstellar war are shipwrecked on a strange world. Real simple. Real classic. But the thing that sells it has to be the characters. It's not a new, gimmicky premise. It's not Lord of the Flies. What you're reading to see is how they pull this off. How do they manage to survive and discover this world's mysteries? And again, from there it's simple. The characters drive the story. What would Janus do if that happened? How would Leandra react when Janus did that?

Once you have the philosophical underpinning, the rest is mechanics. Who's going to write which sections and what's going to happen next? That's just outlining and dividing it up. Generally speaking I'm the organizy one. I'm the one who has the chart of which scenes go in what order and who's responsible for them. With Legacy, it's for the full arc with all three authors, as the whole series is one entity. For example, for The Inheritors, which has just begun, I wrote an outline on paper and then sent it to Amy and Melissa. Amy said, "The first half of the book looks thin. The climax is fully realized, but the first half is remarkably empty, and you've forgotten about Ronon." Amy rewrote the first half and put Ronon's plot to the fore. Additionally, I've written what I think of as guide scenes. These are usually scenes near the middle to end which are keys -- they're points where the plot turns or where something is resolved, and they act as markers along the course. I've done about five of these, two of them with Rodney because it's critical to know where Rodney is at a certain point and what's going on in Rodney's head. Often the guide scenes aren't final, but they show us where we're going at certain points in the book.

Is this helpful? Interesting? I hope this answers your question.
Tags: writing
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    I was just reading a new reader review over on Amazon, and basically what they said is that they liked my work because it made them feel good and…

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